Greek Australian chef Peter Conistis was only in his twenties when he opened his first restaurant Cosmos. A 32-seater in East Sydney, Cosmos gave Conistis the flexibility to experiment and create and hone his craft.
This was a chef who believed in the simplicity of Greek food and what it had to offer, but at the same time wanted to take it to the next level. It was 1993 – before the hype and hoopla of experimental dining experiences. It was a more conservative time, but Conistis believed in what he was doing – recreating the classics and putting a modern twist on dishes from yesteryear. He was the culinary brains behind the scallop moussaka – a dish that has not only gained critical acclaim but has been featured in all his restaurants, including the newly opened Alpha. Taking this chance proved him right. Within three months, the young chef was awarded a chef hat in the 1994 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide, becoming not only the first ever Greek restaurant to be awarded a hat, but the first to be mentioned in the guide.
“It was quite surreal,” Conistis remembers, “three months after opening Cosmos we achieved a chef hat and were named the best Greek restaurant in Sydney.
Conistis was born and bred in Sydney, New South Wales, with stints in the inner city suburbs of beachside Coogee and the grubby urban surrounds of Newtown and Marrickville. When he was a child, he remembers food being the focal point, bringing together friends and family.
“We’d head out west to collect ingredients such as wild greens for salads, and to the Blue Mountains for wild mushrooms,” Conistis tells Neos Kosmos of growing up around Greek food, adding that it played a big role in his childhood. And to this day, he credits his culinary knowledge to his mother, from whom he learnt all the Greek classics and how to make filo pastry from scratch.
But it was that hospitality that he experienced and loved as a child that he is extending to his restaurants. To him, Greek food is simple, accessible, warm and inviting and that’s its appeal. The challenging part in the early days were the Greek Australians, who were expecting something else.
“I guess it was a little challenging having Greeks come into the restaurant expecting to find the food they’d grown up with, but getting something very different – moussaka wasn’t the traditional version but my own contemporary one.”
At the height of his success with Cosmos, Conistis published his first cookbook Greek Cuisine: The New Classics, giving home cooks a chance to add modern twists on traditional dishes, and a chance for people of non-Greek heritage to do the same.
“Greek food is accessible and I wanted people to realise that – it’s not something that should be intimidating,” he says of the inspiration behind publishing the cookbook, adding it was “a very proud moment for [him]”.
By January 1997, Conistis decided to close Cosmos and open a new restaurant Eleni’s in June, where he further developed what was then a unique style of Greek cookery. This time, he was awarded two chef hats for his achievements. His dessert – baked nougat tart, orange blossom custard, candied pistachios and Iranian fairy floss – was declared ‘Dessert of the Year’ by Vogue Entertaining and Travel.
“I like to experiment,” says the chef, “I’m always asking how things can be changed, or new elements incorporated.
“It’s exciting to keep updating things and breaking away from tradition. So I’ll take a classic Greek dish and give it a modern touch – my moussaka uses traditional eggplant layers but also has scallops and freshly made taramasalata.
He says by choosing excellent produce, and by treating it simply, it lets “the true flavours shine”.
“I like to keep things clean and simple – pick great quality produce and treat it with respect.”
After the closure of Eleni’s, Conistis’ next challenge was Omega – the restaurant he opened in 2004, and his most successful to date. In 2005, Omega won Best New Restaurant in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. The restaurant was also awarded two chef hats and Omega’s mezze bar was awarded a further chef hat. Through this restaurant, Conistis was invited by SBS’ Food Safari to join Maeve O’Meara for a number of culinary tours of Greece from 2001 to 2006. At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, Conistis was invited to cook at the opening ceremony, an opportunity that would earn him world wide recognition. Not bad for a Greek Australian chef.
Always looking for a new adventure, Conistis has now opened his latest venue, Alpha restaurant, at the old Hellenic Club in Sydney’s CBD.
“The Hellenic Club is an icon of the Greek community and I feel Alpha fits so well there,” explains the chef.
“Spatially it also offers us the chance to offer a number of different areas – a restaurant, bar, food store and upstairs, fine dining.”
Alpha offers diners four different menus – quick fire cantina food, a rotisserie menu, a meze menu and an a la carte menu; all as a testament to the chef’s experience and need for innovative cooking, but with a hint of homeliness and unpretention. His famous scallop moussaka is on the menu, as are some of his latest creations such as a five layer pie with saffron and pistachio filo.
Interior designer Paul Papadopoulos was called on to create a his own version of ‘Grecian modernism’, of white washed walls but giving a delightful nod to the old Hellenic Club by keeping the exposed columns and rough textured brick visible.
And through travels back and forth to the motherland, the chef is always in awe of what he discovers, and brings them back to his Australian diners. He loves to use and play with Greek products from feta to mastic and only uses Greek olive oil.
“I take inspiration from all regions of Greece and combine them to form a good showcase of what Greek food is all about.”
Alpha restaurant is located at 238 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. For more information visit or call (02) 9098 1111.